Hal Holbrook has died. This indisputable, inescapable new reality hit me full-tilt boogie on the noggin this morning as I read through the latest headlines and downed my second cup of coffee. The words dead and Hal Holbrook don’t seem to belong together in the same sentence and perhaps that’s a simple testimony to how indelible and all-permeating his particular brand of master-acting was and is. But still the same, and for all of my fancy word-stringing and talking head punditry, there it was, an inconvenient and harsh new truth I could not escape: Hal Holbrook, an actor perhaps most lauded for his deservedly celebrated take on wordsmith Mark Twain, now belongs to the ages. Hal Holbrook has died.
The man who would become Hal Holbrook was born on February 17, 1925 in Cleveland “Forest City”, Ohio, the same burg that gave us such luminaries as Paul Newman and Halle Berry. He was the son of Aileen and Harold Rowe Holbrook, two wandering souls who left Hal and his two older sisters to fend for themselves at a young age as they, gypsy-like in their determination, lit out for parts unknown. The trio were brought up by their grandparents and what psychic scars that may have affected the youngest Holbrook from the abandonment by his parents was rendered almost moot as, like any great hero out of a Dickens novel, he forged a path into the world that led him far away from that dark period of his life.
After graduating from Culver Military Academy and then Denison University, Hal took a newfound love of literary great Mark Twain and spun it into a life’s passion and work by developing what would ultimately become a one-man show called Mark Twain Tonight that would put his considerable acting talents under the spotlight. We here at Vents are happy to report that Hal Holbrook more than passed the muster with that endeavor; his spot-on representation of Twain went on to earn the thespian an Emmy and a Tony. By the time he retired the performance in 2017, Holbrook had put on over 2100 performances as Samuel Clemens.
The big screen and the boob tube called forth to the man, too, and before long (after serving in the U.S. Military during World War II)he could be seen in productions ranging from All the President’s Men, Wall Street, The Firm, Creepshow, Lincoln to television phenomenon Designing Women.
About that last credit mentioned above: I would be quite remiss not to mention that Holbrook was married to Dixie Carter, one of the stars of Designing Women. The two married in 1984 and were together until her passing in 2010. Twenty six years of love, laughter and memories. We should all be so blessed.
I’m scrolling through Mr. Holbrook’s list of accomplishments as I jot out this article and I’m struck by the sheer volume of work the man put in during his tenure in Hollywood; it’s way too much for me to adequately sum up with a limited word count, so I’ll end this on a personal note if I may be so indulged: Hal Holbrook acted in a Sean Penn directed film called Into the Wild back in 2007 in which he played an older widowed gentleman who encounters a free-spirit in the form of actor Emile Hirsch. The old man develops an affinity for the questing youth and, in one of the film’s most poignant moments, attempts to circumnavigate Hirsch’s characters Fate and Destiny by offering to adopt him.
“I..I had an idea; you know my mother was an only child and so was my father… And I was their only child… So when I’m gone, I’m the end of the line… My family will be finished. What do you say you let me adopt you? I…I could be, say, your grandfather.”
Holbrook is gently rebuffed by the doomed youth and the camera almost melts as it holds on Holbrook’s weathered yet noble visage: Prideful, lamenting and heartbreakingly shattered. It’s a transcendent bit of acting that becomes something almost supernatural and otherworldly and looking back on Mr. Holbrook’s own early childhood scars it is all but impossible not to connect this fictional character to the very real life Hal Holbrook.
Hal Holbrook has died. But for the above bit of acting and a million other examples akin to it, Hal Holbrook is alive and well. At least that’s the way I see it.